Submarine Armament: Cruise Missiles

Cruise missiles are jet-propelled pilotless aircraft designed to strike distant targets with great accuracy. Traveling at hundreds of miles an hour, cruise missiles use the global positioning system, inertial guidance, optical scenery correlation, and terrain comparing radar to find their targets. Their accuracy makes them especially useful in attacking military targets in urban areas with limited damage to nearby civilian facilities.

Naval interest in cruise missiles during the 1940s and 1950s produced results, but the concept was shelved in favor of the much more promising Polaris ballistic missile program. Improving technology and changing missions in the 1970s revived the earlier idea. The Tomahawk cruise missile joined the fleet in 1983 and has played a particularly important role in the Persian Gulf War and in actions since the end of the Cold War.

Click diagram to enlarge.

Flight Profile of Tomahawk Missile
Tomahawk missiles can be launched from either a standard 21-inch (53-cm) torpedo tube or, on newer submarines, a vertical launch tube. After the missile clears the submarine, a 7-second burst from its rocket boost motor blasts it out of the water. Once airborne, its turbojet engine starts, its wings spread, and it noses over to hug the surface at about 500 miles (800 km) per hour toward its target. Over water, the missile relies on inertial guidance, perhaps also the global positioning system, for navigation. Upon reaching land, the Tomahawk updates its position and corrects its course using TERCOM (terrain contour matching) or DSMAC (digital scene-matching area correlator)—the first system compares radar signals, the second optical images, with a computer-stored map—before closing on the target at an altitude of 100 feet (30 m) or less.

Tomahawk Cruise Missile
Submarine-launched versions of the Tomahawk cruise missile entered service in 1983. There were three types: anti-ship with conventional warhead, land-attack with conventional warhead, and land-attack with nuclear warhead. The missile is 21 feet (6.2 m) long and weighs 1.5 tons. It is long-ranged and very accurate, but the exact figures are classified. In 1991, nuclear Tomahawks were withdrawn from service and placed in storage. The anti-ship version has also been withdrawn from service. From Raytheon Company

Post-War Cruise Missiles
Shortly after World War II, the U.S. Navy tested the Loon missile, a modified version of the German V-1. An American design, the subsonic Regulus I, followed in 1953, here shown in a 1961 test-firing from USS Halibut (SSGN-587). Halibut was the only nuclear-powered guided missile submarine, but the U.S. Navy had previously converted or built four diesel-electric guided missile submarines. Between them, the five boats made 41 deterrent patrols. The U.S. Navy canceled plans to further develop this forerunner of the Tomahawk submarine-launched cruise missile in 1958, because Polaris ballistic missile development by then looked so promising. Courtesy Naval Historical Center

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